Falcons might have worst GM, coach openings among NFL teams

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank takes the field as the fourth quarter winds down Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Falcons beat the Broncos, 34-27, for their third win of the season. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank takes the field as the fourth quarter winds down Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Falcons beat the Broncos, 34-27, for their third win of the season. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Falcons franchise owner Arthur Blank believes he’s offering a great opportunity for a coach and general manager. That’s true, but it’s hardly the point. Every NFL team with an opening for those positions is offering a great opportunity.

There are only 32 head coaches and top football executives (Bill Belichick serves in both roles for the Patriots). Just a handful of positions are available every year. Even the top candidates can’t be choosy if they want a job at the top of their profession. The Falcons will end up hiring strong candidates if only because NFL teams always enjoy a buyer’s market for their two highest-profile (and paid) football positions.

What matters most for the Falcons is having jobs that compare favorably with the other NFL teams with openings. Three are looking for both a general manager and a coach. Four more are looking for one or the other. The Falcons have an unusual amount of competition, which is another cost of Blank’s decision to keep Thomas Dimitroff and Dan Quinn around.

Blank boasts that the Falcons have a good reputation for their commitment to providing resources such as facilities and staff. I suppose that matters, but in the egalitarian NFL, the most important asset is player talent. The draft and free agency are the paths for getting more of it. Picks and salary-cap space are valuable.

Using those criteria as my guide, I see the Falcons’ jobs as (maybe) better than only one other team looking for a coach, GM or both.

The Falcons probably have a situation better than the Texans, who need a coach and GM. It’s close, though. Houston doesn’t have a pick in either of the first two rounds of the draft. The Texans do have quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has three Pro Bowl selections before age 26. The Texans were in the playoffs in 2018 and 2019.

Drew Lock looks like another quarterback miss for John Elway, who stepped down as Broncos GM. But Denver has a good defense and most of its best players under contract for next season. The Broncos can create more cap space relatively easily with cuts and restructured deals.

Holding the No. 4 pick in the draft might put the Falcons ahead of the Panthers. Carolina owns the No. 8 pick. But -- this is a theme -- the next Panthers GM will have little trouble gaining cap relief with cuts, while the new Falcons GM won’t.

The other teams with openings have much better situation than the Falcons for coaches and GMs.

The Jaguars (GM and coach) project to have the most available cap space plus the No. 1 overall draft pick and extra selections in the first and second rounds. The Jets (coach) have the No. 2 pick, a quarterback with some trade value (Sam Darnold) and cap space second to the Jags. The new hires for those teams will have the chance to quickly improve the roster around top QB prospects.

The Jags and Jets have become laughingstock franchises. The Falcons can’t look down on them anymore. They are 18-30 over the past three seasons. The Jets are 13-35. The Jags are 12-36.

A coaching candidate looking for a franchise with more player talent and recent success might want to work for the Chargers. They have quarterback Justin Herbert, who set rookie records, in addition to substantial cap space. The Chargers look ready to return to the playoffs after a transitional season from Philip Rivers to Herbert.

Even the woebegone Lions have more to offer than the Falcons. It may not seem like it, but ex-Georgia star Matthew Stafford still is only 32 years old. The next general manager can choose to keep him. If not, Stafford can be released for cap relief.

The Falcons can’t easily move on from Matt Ryan and start over. Their list of good young players is shorter than the one with draft picks who haven’t worked out. The offensive and defensive lines are lacking. Better luck in close games and with injuries might get the Falcons closer to an even record, but as Blank admits, it will take more than that for them to be good again.

That’s going to be hard to do for the Falcons to do given their current roster and cap limitations. Going all-in to win with Ryan and Julio Jones backfired. It will be hard for the next coach and GM to quickly reverse the fallout from that. The Falcons won’t say it and no smart candidate will tell them that, but everyone can see it.

Ryan and Jones have something left. The problem is they are being paid like cornerstones for a contending team while they are past that point. A new offensive coordinator could help the offense get better. But a different play-caller can only make so much of a difference when the talent around Ryan and Jones isn’t good enough to make up for their declines.

Ryan finished his 13th season strong, but was ineffective for stretches of it. It was jarring to see him so often unsure of himself. Julio Jones was hobbled for most of his 10th season. Leg injuries are concerning for a big wide receiver who relies on fast-twitch muscles to allow him to do things smaller receivers can do.

The Falcons are near the bottom of the list for coaches and personnel executives looking to win now. That’s important for coaches, especially, considering the relative lack of job security. Blank said long-term vision is important. He also said the Falcons have a chance to be very competitive in 2021. The NFL is engineered for quick turnarounds, so that’s what fans have come to expect.

I haven’t addressed the ownership of the teams seeking a coach and/or GM. That’s hard to evaluate without knowing the inner workings of each franchise. Unlike baseball, finances aren’t an important part of the picture for NFL owners. It’s impossible for them not to make a lot of money because their financial risks are socialized and their labor costs are mostly fixed.

The main concern with ownership for football coaches and executives is the ability to do their jobs without interference. Hire them, give them what they need and let them work. Approve the biggest decisions when necessary. Make sure the working environment is positive for all employees.

Blank is a high-profile owner. He’s a regular presence on the sidelines at the end of Falcons games and usually takes a front-row seat at postgame news conferences. I believe Blank does those things to give his customers the impression that he cares about more than just taking their money. But it rankles those who believe he’s micromanaging football decisions, a perception that’s also fueled by his weekly meetings with his head coach.

Blank insists his goal is to support, not influence, his football decision-makers. That’s the pitch he’s making to GM and coach candidates. It’s an important selling point. I’m sure every team owner will be making a similar case when they interview.

Well, all of them except Jaguars team owner Shad Khan. He raised eyebrows when he told reporters that he plans to “keep the roster control” he took for himself after firing top football executive Tom Coughlin in December 2019. If you think Blank’s sideline posing is too much, imagine him declaring that he will decide which players are on the roster.

My guess is that the candidates for Falcons coach and GM will be OK with Blank’s involvement so long as it doesn’t go that far. More important is the ability to improve the team’s talent so they can win more games. The problem for the Falcons is they might offer less of a chance for that than every other NFL team with openings.

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